Blink in Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, and you'll miss the 10-second appearance of a yakuza gun that never fires. There is a gangster in the movie, played by an actor with the same impassively masklike face as the director. But Hiro is old, tired, alone, and consumed by a missed opportunity for love back when he was a poor factory boy meeting his devoted girlfriend for lunch every day on a park bench until, one day, he announced he was leaving to fulfill his big-shot dreams. Returning now to the sunny park with his bemused henchmen, the prosperous Hiro is astonished to discover that his lover is still coming back day after day with lunch for two, convinced that her boyfriend will show up. As the camera pans in on her, we see that she's an old woman, clad in the same red dress she wore as a girl and smiling the same hopeful smile.

Hiro's is one of three interwoven stories about men driven by selfishness and women driven mad by the loss of love. Its tone is elegiac, and while in its quiet way it is a tremendously violent movie, its brutalities are primarily those of the soul. A beautiful young pop star disfigured by a car accident goes to meet her most ardent, and sinister, fan. A young man who dumped his true love in favor of a more socially acceptable marriage is overcome by guilt and returns to find his sweetheart reduced by the betrayal to a babbling child. In an image inspired, the director says, by a vagrant couple he once saw on the street, the couple wanders through the seasons of the Japanese countryside, bound together by a red rope, searching for something they've forgotten love, or happiness, or their former selves.

Kitano was inspired by the 17th-century playwright Chikamatsu, whose popularity and obsession with life's fundamental emotions abandonment, the tug of social pressure versus romantic desire, the pursuit of material success at the expense of love earned him a reputation as Japan's Shakespeare. The movie's formal structure is taken from the revived Bunraku puppet theater, in which Kitano's grandmother was a narrator and player, and a Tokyo National Theater performance of Bunraku provides an eerily beautiful punctuation to the three stories. But though Kitano has called Dolls “a puppet show with human characters,” there's nothing stiff or unreal about its intensity of feeling. At times the landscape, with its cherry blossoms, its unruffled lakes and snowy fields, feels like a spoof of classical Japanese film. Kitano is never above winking at his audience, but I don't believe he's doing that here. Nor is he showing his mushy side, as he did in that other departure from his action films, the excruciatingly schmaltzy 1999 waif movie Kikujiro. Dolls is a full-hearted tragedy of regret and an unblinking contemplation of the resolution to all our earthly troubles: In a searing image at the end, we see two of the characters rolling down a snowy hillside, then hanging off a tree branch like lifeless dolls.?

DOLLS | Written and directed by TAKESHI KITANO Produced by MASAYUKI MORI and TAKIO YOSHIDA | Released by Palm Pictures | At the Fairfax

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